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Andrew Coyne: Divide and conquer? In Canadian politics, it seems maybe not


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“The time for timid is over,” NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told his party over the weekend. The message was plainly intended to reassure those who felt the party had lost its way in the last election.

Indeed, the convention was widely seen as a return to militancy for the party. Though it avoided extremities such as the Leap manifesto, the convention passed resolutions endorsing a sheaf of radical policies, from universal pharmacare — and dental care — to abolishing tuition fees to legalizing all drugs for personal use.

Mind you, as others have noted, to call this a left turn requires forgetting what the NDP actually proposed in the last election, which included not only universal pharmacare, but a $15 minimum wage, a national child care plan, and Senate abolition. The party’s apparent caution, beyond the signature balanced-budget pledge, was mostly a matter of tone, and then only relative to its usual robust, unapologetic radicalism.

If you want to see timidity, rather, look across the ideological divide, to the Conservatives. Whether it is the Ontario Progressive Conservative party’s election platform, which promises to retain virtually every one of the Wynne government’s worst initiatives, or the micro-politics trickling out of the federal leader’s shop, this is a party that long ago gave up trying to change things much. We’ve grown so used to it we no longer notice.

NDP President Marit Stiles addresses delegates at the NDP Convention in Ottawa, Friday, February 16, 2018.

In writing on this previously, I’ve attributed this insecurity to the party’s long history of electoral futility, especially at the federal level. But that only invites the question: why have the Tories been such losers? Why, since 1935, have they lost two elections in three to the Liberals? And here we come across an intriguing puzzle.

For the start of that near-century of Liberal dominance coincides with the arrival of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, forerunners of the NDP. By the conventional assumptions of politics, the splitting of the left-of-centre vote — at any rate, the non-Conservative vote — should have been fatal to the Liberals’ chances, delivering election after election to the Conservatives.

But that is not what happened. Of the 17 elections from 1867 to 1930, the Liberals won only seven, trailing the Conservatives in the popular vote by an average of 1.6 percentage points. By contrast, the Liberals have won 16 of the 25 elections since then, with an average 3.3-point margin of victory (from 1993 to 2000, vs. combined Progressive Conservative/Reform-Canadian Alliance vote) in the popular vote.

Canadian politics are not easily mapped on a simple left-right axis, of course: language and region always play their part. Nevertheless, it is striking that, despite having to split the vote with the CCF/NDP, the Liberals’ electoral performance, far from deteriorating, improved.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne leaves a news conference at Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto on Thursday Jan. 25, 2018.

Despite? Or because of? Perhaps what’s going on here isn’t simply two parties warring over a fixed slice of the vote. Perhaps, rather, the presence of two parties on the left (later three, and arguably four, with the advent of the Green Party and the Bloc Quebecois) has served to enlarge the total universe of voters available to them — a sort of political Say’s Law, wherein the supply creates its own demand.

The two parties, after all, while they have much in common, do not draw on the same undifferentiated mass of voters.

Though there is an overlap of Liberal-NDP “switchers,” each also has its own distinct base. Separately, then, the two command a larger total vote than they would combined, taking votes not only from each other but from the Conservatives.

The NDP, by its willingness to advocate for progressive issues the Liberals would prefer not to touch, has expanded the boundaries of permissible debate, pulling the median vote to the left, forcing the Liberals to respond and pulling the median vote to the left. At the same time, the broad philosophical sympathy between the two parties means they define the terms of debate, the default assumptions of public discussion, leaving the Tories permanently on the defensive, as the odd man out.

Jagmeet Singh Leader of the NDP sits with delegates at the NDP convention in Ottawa, Friday, February 16, 2018.

By contrast, consider what has happened on the right in recent years. The formation of a unified Conservative Party in 2004, after the decade-long split between Reform and the Progressive Conservatives, was also supposed to end vote-splitting.

Yet here, too, we see a striking result. In the three elections between 1993 and 2000, the combined vote-share of Reform (and its successor, the Canadian Alliance) and the PCs averaged 36.9 per cent of the popular vote. Since then, the Conservative party has averaged just 35 per cent.

Before then, Reform served a function in conservative politics much like the NDP, taking more radical positions on issues than the PCs were comfortable with. Given its avowedly regional origins, its chances of forming a government were slight. Yet in its brief life it had an enormous impact, shifting the median vote significantly to the right.

To be sure, the reunited Conservative party was able to take power, with the help of the worst corruption scandal in a century. What it did not do was alter the underlying balance of Canadian politics. With Reform no longer a threat, the party had no need to watch its right flank; shorn of any lingering ideological mission, it became more known for its centralized leadership and relentless partisanship.

Moreover, the status quo ex ante of a single party on the right having been restored, the Liberal-NDP tag team were able to regain control of the terms of debate. The Harper government never dared, even after it had won its majority, to reform any of the institutions of the Liberal-NDP state, or challenge any of its fundamental assumptions, leaving little of substance to show for its time in office.

A hypothesis, in two parts: Maybe the Canadian left has succeeded, not in spite of its division into two or more parties, but because of it. Maybe the weakness of the right is because of, not despite, its unification into one.